Several months ago, while I was still practicing law, I had an interesting conversation with a friend at my (now former) law firm: Would it be possible to go a day without sin? We quickly concluded that it would be quite difficult; there was (and is) an awful lot of sin in our daily routines.
When I had the conversation with my friend at the firm, we quickly went through a “routine workday” of sorts, listing all of the occasions of sin in our daily routines. My list at the time went something like this:
I wake up and get ready for work. I notice that my computer room is a mess because the kids have been playing in it. I get upset at the kids (sin). I hop on the train to go to work. An attractive woman in a mini skirt sits down next to me, and I notice her (sin). I arrive at work. My secretary has misplaced some important documents, for the third time. I get mad at her (sin). I get a letter from opposing counsel that completely mischaracterizes our position to the judge. I get mad at opposing counsel (sin). I call up other people on the team, and describe opposing counsel’s letter, using a few choice terms (sin).
I run up to grab lunch. Another attractive woman passes by in the cafeteria, and I notice her (sin). I read my blog; some yahoo has totally mischaracterized my post. I get annoyed at the yahoo and write a snide comment back (sin). I get a call from the partner I work for: Have I finished the subpoena? Actually, I had forgotten all about it. I say “I’m working on it, and I’ll have it to you shortly” (sin). I go get dinner from the cafeteria, which is expensed. I pick up some treats for the kids while I’m there (sin).
I’m ready to end the day, sitting figuring out my hours for submission. Did I put in four or five hours on that brief? I’m not really sure. There was a little bit of web surfing in there somewhere, but whatever. I write down that I put in five hours on the brief (sin). I arrive home late. The house is messy, and I get upset with my wife about it. (sin). I sit down to watch some TV. A movie is on with pretty women in skimpy attire, and I’m paying too much attention to them (sin).
And then I go to sleep. The next day’s routine will be largely the same.
It seemed to me then that many of my sins fell into one of a few categories: I was unduly distracted by pretty women; I was too quick to get angry at people with whom I interacted; and I engaged in little episodes of dishonesty. Could I go a full day without any of these? I wondered then if my inability to escape sin was based in part on my work environment. Law firms are a harsh workplace. Others at the firm seemed to have the same problems. This sounded like a good explanation at the time — perhaps the sins of my daily routine would evaporate if and when I left law practice.
I wish I could say that things have changed since I left practice to enter academia. Unfortunately, they really haven’t. I still find myself too quick to anger at those with whom I interact — family, friends, co-workers, students. I still find myself too quick to slide into petty lies and deceits. And I’m still far too easily distracted by women. I still find it hard to even conceive of going a day without sin. And I’m forced to admit that my problem wasn’t the law firm pressure-cooker life at all. The problem is me.
This leads me to wonder whether there is any hope for me. Am I really so weak that I’m incapable of going even ONE DAY without committing a sin? How embarrassing! And I haven’t even STARTED on the possibility of sins of omission — failure to read scriptures, to pray, to give to the poor, to do missionary work, and so on.
My friend and I dissected our daily routines and discussed the issue at some length. Eventually, the topic turned to whether we could, through careful planning, construct a day without sin. The key, we agreed, would be avoiding all opportunity for sin. With no exposure to attractive women, or to the interactions that tended to result in anger or dishonesty (frustrating co-workers, demanding bosses, etc), we thought it might be possible to pull off a day without sin.
We came up with one potential blueprint for a day without sin. The person would need to go up into the mountains, far away from all human contact. He would spend the night in a tent; in the morning, he would rise, prepare for his day, and then avoid all opportunity for sin. He would eat his food and perform any necessary tasks; otherwise, he would spend the day reading scripture to avoid the mental idleness that often seems to lead to sinful thoughts. He would have no internet, no television, no cell phone or blackberry, no contact with people. There would be no opportunity for anger, lust, or dishonesty. He would live the life of a monk, and in doing so, avoid sin for one complete day. At the end of the day, he would retire, having gone a day without sin.
My friend is a Catholic, and he did not seem particularly surprised at this idea. There is a long tradition of ascetics in the Catholic faith. As a Mormon, I was horrified. Why was it that I could only imagine a day without sin if I first mentally transformed myself into a monk? What ever happened to “in the world, not of the world”? Is that compromise really possible?
I want to believe that it’s possible. I really do. And yet, try as I may, I remain unable to honestly imagine a day without sin in my present environs. This includes my past and present jobs, as well as most other professional enviroments that I can imagine. There are simply too many opportunities to go wrong, and I have too many bad habits. And I guess that I’m fundamentally unsure how to make “in the world but not of the world” work. The only way that I can imagine a day without sin is by fleeing the world altogether.
What does this say about me? And what does this say about the sad realities of life in the modern age? I don’t know; I really don’t know, and this worries me.
Perhaps most importantly, what should I be doing about this problem? Recall the admonition that if my right eye offend me, I should pluck it out. If I truly cannot live a sin-free existence in the world — not even for a single day — then shouldn’t I want to leave the world altogether? Does this mean that I should resign my job, pack up my family, and flee to a desert island or empty mountaintop forever? And how exactly can that ascetic impulse be reconciled with the communitarian ideals of Mormonism — home teaching, missionary work, and so forth? How exactly are we supposed to navigate that Scylla and Charybdis?
I don’t know the answers to these questions; and I find the questions themselves rather frightening. Perhaps some of our readers have some thoughts on the issue. I’m really eager to see what anyone has to say about this, because frankly, I’m stumped. I don’t want to be a monk; I want to live my life; and besides, I have a vague sense (which I think is church-related) that we’re not supposed to be seeking asceticism. (Aren’t we somehow supposed to overcome our impulses to sin, rather than running away like frightened rabbits?)
But against all of that desire weighs the inexorable fact: Abandoning society altogether is the only way that I can even so much as imagine going even one day without sin.